‘And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.’
— Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key
‘Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers,
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!’
— the Marseilles
Looking down to the water below, with the moon already in the sky above them, the people leaning over the parapet of the John T. Loughran Bridge are just silhouettes.
On that stretch of the 9W, a girder bridge five stories tall over the Rondout Creek, tax paying spectators just pull over to park on the shoulder. The traffic rushes past behind them as they step out of their vehicles and walk to the edge, to lean with their elbows on the short concrete wall like thirsty patrons, waiting for the sun to set.
It’s the constitution’s birthday and the fireworks show in Kingston is arguably the most anticipated 4th of July display in Ulster County. A tow boat pushes a massive flat barge laden with explosives firework technicians up the Rondout Creek, out with the tide from the Thomas J. Feeney Enterprises marine terminal and towards the expectant crowds waiting a mile and a half up.
A police boat with blue lights and five representatives of the Law clears the way near the Strand, that strip of land at the bottom of Broadway near the creek.
The landlubber crowd lubbs along the riverfront eagerly, gathering along the promenade and weekender docks, to set off pocket fireworks and mingle. All along the riverbank there are hundreds of them.
And on the waterways too, there’s a rag-tag flotilla assembled of small power boats, outboard engines chugging, their propellers churning just under the warm water of the summertime creek. Sailboats coming from the Hudson, under power now, their sails furled and doused, head back to their docks. A proud-bowed gasoline vessel flies a Trump flag and cruises the scene while young male boaters pull off unconventional tacking maneuvers, creating wakes. Like a Winnebago on skis, an entire R.V. floats on Pontoons.
A bewhiskered police officer in a wetsuit on a jet ski chases up boats drifting too near the fireworks barge, warns them off. Anchors are hoisted, the vessels fight against the current to gain some distance before the anchors are tossed back in the drink to drag across the bottom of the riverbed.
Made up to look like a three-story steamboat with smokestacks, The Rip Van Winkle II meanders off towards the open water of the Hudson, decorated like a fat and dutiful bride. A live band plays from the middle deck where a mélange of purple and green and blue lights swirl from the roof. The snare drummer is carried off to the Hudson on the suck tide.
Kingston is a river town, riparian say the aged, though many residents have forgotten the word. But the waterways remain buoyant. A canoe or kayak will do in a pinch. Bring walkie-talkies and headlamps. If tides are mysterious, stay near the shore where the frontage is shallow.
The orange and pink light from the set sun finally fades. The sky grows dark. The ‘shooters’ on the barge measure the interest of the audience and wait into the dullness.
A compressed air boat horn blasts. Other boat horns answer back and pick up the game, strings of rapid-fire fireworks from the shore rata-tat-tatting.
From the barge, the first sudden streaks and pops illuminate the sky above the waiting crowds, on highway bridge, on river and on shore. The congregation, for that is what they are, lets out a cheer, surprised under the spreading branches, the slow cousins of lightning strikes.
“I was brought up in Middle Village, Queens,” says Michael Illisyn, the licensed technician who oversaw the evening’s explosions. “There was a lot of fireworks back then.”
It’s getting on towards 11 p.m. and he stands watching equipment getting loaded off from the barge and into the back of a panel truck. It’s just the nature of the business one is always loading out in the dark.
“Yeah, my parents moved me up here,” he says. “Then I went to work professional when I was 18.”
Ilisyn says he’s been in the fireworks game for 42 years but owns his own boat business. Primarily this means fiberglass repairs but he hustles the fireworks game all summer until New Years.
“We do weddings. We do Lego Land. A million different shows on the Hudson. This stuff tonight really isn’t the big stuff. The biggest was maybe a two and a half inch ball.”
His Queens accent sounds like it’s made peace with living so close to Albany. He intersperses his words with a lot of yeah, yeah, yeahs. His voice is hoarse and rarely rises above a raspy whisper.
“So there’s a three inch ball shell,” he says. “The size is usually the height. So a three inch ball shell goes three hundred feet and an 8 inch shell goes eight hundred feet.” And then, after a moment, he says: “It’s supposed to…You know what I mean? There’s no oops in this business…you’re not here no more.”
This business of spectacle is all chemical reactions and repurposed wartime technology. Mortar canons fire a shell shaped like a ball. This is because the old cartoon rocket shape was unreliable and once airborne the rocket was unpredictable. It could veer wildly into the crowd, overreach and set a house on fire or make a u-turn back to home base with all the other fireworks waiting for a spark. The ball shell is dependable though; the direction it’s fired is the direction it goes.
“We used to shoot from that state-owned bridge, the Wurts Street bridge, but they’re fixing that now so we couldn’t shoot there anymore. So we was doing it up on the water system [treatment plant] when Covid was going on. Everybody was in masks and they drove up to Home Depot. We were shooting it from here and they were in their cars watching it there, I guess.”
Potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal are the siblings that comprise gun powder.
An electronic fuse pops and ignites the charge of black powder. As soon as the shell is propelled out of the mortar tube, a lit fuse is already working away inside. The different components within look something like coconut marshmallow dessert balls spray-painted with glitter and radiator paint.
When the fuse runs out the lightly glued shell bursts apart from the force of the explosion within, the ignited fireworks are sent on their predetermined paths.
“Let me tell you something,” says Ilissyn. “There’s all different countries that make shells but China produces them the cheapest. Okay, if you had a shell made in China, it might cost a dollar. But it might cost $15 here.”
The different colors produced for the crowd are decided by which elements, minerals and salts are packed inside. Copper salts produce blue. Use Barium salts and you get green. Magnesium, Aluminum or Titanium will burn white. Red is Strontium. Yellow is Sodium.
When the shells burst then you see what you’ve got. Some scream. Some crackle and fizzle. Some just explode. The percussive hits to the sternum come from a shockwave produced when an oxidizer is mixed in with sulfur and metal. The oxidizer provides the oxygen as it decomposes. A metal like aluminum provides the fuel.
“That was cool right?” says Ilissyn, referring to the grand finale. “They’re four second cakes, but there was like six of them so they shoot in four seconds. What? Yeah. Like a birthday cake. That’s what we call multi-shots. There might be 100 shots in four seconds. We kind of paused it a little bit and then because they think it’s all over again and then…ba-ba boom! You gotta tease them, you know what I mean? They’ll remember that finale. They’ll remember that tonight.”
Ilissyn’s finale was memorable. After 15 minutes or so of the sky lit up with airborne incendiary devices, explosions which were shaped liked peonies, or horsetails, or chrysanthemums, the noise of the reports rattling back over the creek from the hills of Port Ewen, Connelly and the Rondout, there was finally a pause. The echoes died away in the hills and a stillness settled down.
And then those four second cakes Ilissyn was talking about, which are a like a bunch of mortar tubes fastened together unleashed percussive fury upon the sky. The separate explosions built towards a roar that overwhelmed the senses. The lights flashed so bright it was hard to look at. The shockwave was frightening on a nonverbal level and the body was in fight or flight mode, in fact ready to flee.
Celebrating bombs bursting in air is as American as the Star Spangled Banner, that rhyming poem by lawyer Francis Scott Key, which he wrote about the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the war of 1812.
It’s improbable to imagine Kingston being invaded by a foreign occupying force. Kingstonians learning to make Bandera smoothies unlikely. But slumbering in the national genetic code, there is the spirit of rebellion. Shockwaves and explosions are the music of resistance and the song of invasion and Americans know it in their bones.
While it’s fallen off the top of the news cycle, this July 4th marked 100 days of war, since the invasion of Ukraine began, by Putin’s forces. Repelled by Kiev alone, all the action is in the Donbas region now, in Donetsk and Luhansk. The sounds of explosions, flashes of light, with bombed-out buildings, dead civilians and dead soldiers are no celebration.
This 4th of July, the great American experiment turned 246 years old. Wherever they may be, whatever language they may speak, in this peacetime city of Kingston, solidarity is with the occupied.